When the two main characters have fallen in love in the first 15 minutes of a musical, you know it’s only going to go emotionally downhill from there.
I went into Miss Saigon knowing two things: it was about an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam war, and that it had an original run on the West End 25 years ago. After the show I found out another fact that explained a lot; Schönberg and Boublil created it, the same two men who gave us the barrel-of-laughs musical that is Les Misérables.
Quick warning, this is not a musical you want to see with your parents. Unless you are comfortable watching with your parents women in their underwear dance in a brothel, which you may be.
As with Les Mis, Miss Saigon is sung-through, unrelenting in giving us teary power ballads and dance numbers. But unlike Les Mis; hell, unlike most good musicals, Miss Saigon lacked any standout tracks, which is odd for a musical where the music doesn’t stop. There was nothing that I was humming for days after.
But what it lacked in musical panache, it made up with excellent story telling. Miss Saigon took you on a journey with Kim, the young Vietnamese prostitute, and her doomed love with Chris, the American GI. Eva Noblezada played Kim, giving an astonishingly moving performance from someone who has never had a professional theatre role before. Another stand-out performance was Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, who’s mix of sleaze and humour never stopped to entertain.
The staging took you into the depths of Saigon, from the seedy Dreamland Club, to the infamous helicopter scene outside the American Embassy, intersected with trips to America and Thailand. It was the little touches that really impacted the underlying serious tone of the musical. The point where Saigon transitioned to Ho Chi Minh was marked with a militaristic dance in front of a giant golden face of Ho Chi Minh, only to be replaced later in the play with a gaping face of the Statue of Liberty while the Engineer dances in front of it singing about the American Dream. We are left wondering if the Engineer is left yearning for an ideal of a place that is a reflection of the one he left behind.
Miss Saigon is full of morally questionable characters. We are tricked into liking those who have committed crimes, disliking those who have done nothing wrong. In the world of war, Miss Saigon never fails to remind us there are no victors.